Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaching or Research?

This topic on teaching-research nexus has always been at the back of my mind for some time. I wanted to blog about this topic, so I started some research to find out whether teaching and research are intertwined or otherwise. Wow, what did I find? I didn't realize that hundreds of researches have been carried out on the research-teaching nexus and how it relates to ways in which research supports teaching and vice versa. The verdict? Hmmm...interesting...but I will try to summarize the research findings in my future article. Anyway, Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Chemistry Nobel laureate, remarks: “Why do today’s university faculty so rarely apply the same innovation and energy to their teaching that they invest in their research? There is no mystery here. Good teaching may be appreciated, even applauded, but good research is at the heart of the reward structure” (Science 299, 165, 2003).

So is this about monetary or material reward? Can we get more great teachers and educate more lifelong long learners by giving material incentives to teachers? Hmm...Everything seems to be driven by money. Ah, well...reality of life. But the latest research on the impact of giving incentives to teachers. Daniel H. Pink (author of the book 'Drive') has written an article "Does giving teachers bonuses improve student performance?" based on the latest research finding. Go ahead and read the gist of the finding - you can download the original research article as well.

To start the ball rolling, I have interviewed two of my colleagues, Professor Fong Soon Fook and Associate Professor Mahamad Hakimi Ibrahim. Fong is a Professor of Multimedia Education at the School of Educational Studies and Hakimi is a lecturer with Chemical Engineering background from the School of Industrial Technology.

1. What is your idea about “transforming higher education”? Is it really necessary?

PROF FONG: Quality of Public Higher Education in Malaysia is dynamically being redefined again and again based upon the changes in the top-down policies of the Government and The Ministry of Higher Education.  I am of the opinion that the players in the Public and Private Higher Education are compartmentalized and playing their own local R&D game. Such an “inbreeding” might sporadically bring in some surprises once in a while by some individuals. Such a pattern has been going on and will continue with poor return-of-investment.

Is transforming higher education necessary? YES! We need an aggressive and dynamic transformation. The talents in the Malaysian higher education institutes are plenty. Let us tear down the “territorial” fences & slogans and be governed by a corporate-consensus of one vision and one goal to bring this small but dynamic nation forward. As we blend and cross-breed academically, I strongly believed that the “hybrids” and synergy generated by like-minded researchers and academics will result in a “tipping-point” to suddenly transform the landscape of higher education in Malaysia. 

DR HAKIMI: Yes, current higher education seems to serve the market forces/hegemony, where our students are basically ‘manufactured’ for a conveyor belted society. Some called it academic capitalism.(By the way do you think people are on the same wave length as to what constitutes education, higher education and hence transforming higher education?).

2. Do you think there is a conflict between teaching and research at a research-intensive university like Universiti Sains Malaysia?

PROF FONG: Research ought to complement teaching. There are plenty of researches conducted in the Public Universities. The findings and implications of the studies are more often than not, resting on the shelves in the libraries and resource-rooms.  USM as a research-intensive university should take the initiative to conduct an annual “review and upgrading” of the course curriculum.  Such current curriculum with added values from research findings will be a great advantage to our main key stakeholders – our graduates.

DR HAKIMI: No. Both are complementary.

3. In the context of USM, do you think research has been given special attention at the expense on teaching?

PROF FONG: As long as the promotion criteria give more emphasis to publications and conference presentations related to research, it will be more than natural that academics will be inclined towards spending more time and efforts in research at the expense on teaching.  At this point, I suggest that the administrators of higher education help academics balance their management of time and efforts. To this effect, the paper chase for KPIs needs to be reviewed. Let us be reminded that our core-business is indeed “teaching and learning” and raising a breed of 21st century skilled graduates to help realized the growth and vision of our nation.  Alvin Toffler phrased it very well – “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.  May we be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn the art of balancing teaching with research.

DR HAKIMI: Not quite. In fact the so called attention has arrived rather late. The acceleration in research activities goes together with the greater accessibility to internet based research materials and better staff global networking. We are responding to the changes happening globally.

4. Do you think research can enhance the quality of faculty’s teaching and students’ learning?

PROF FONG: On one hand, university graduates must be grounded with basic foundations of various disciplines.  On the other hand, our undergraduates should be kept in pace with the latest in research-findings related to their core disciplines. For all you know, such graduates will stand above the crowd and is “market-ready” to lead with the latest findings from the faculty’s research. I am always reminded a quote come from John Dewey “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”.

DR HAKIMI: Of course.

5. Do you think we should have a separate track for teaching and research? I mean a staff can opt to focus only on teaching OR on research.

PROF FONG: In the university, teaching and research ought to be in the same track. Having been a  school teacher for 20 years before joining the university,  my first love and passion have been teaching. Since joining USM as a lecturer-cum-researcher, my teaching contents have been frequently upgraded with current findings which in turn help upgrade the competency of my students in various aspects. Teaching and research should indeed go hand in hand.

DR HAKIMI: Possible. But the choice is up to the lecturers – to do singly or both.However we should allow the lecturers to ‘discover themselves’ and not to force a track to ‘manufacture’ an automaton in teaching or research or both. Part of research is the staff ‘researching’ into themselves. To discover their raison d'ĂȘtre. It is to answer the quranic question ‘fa-aina tazhabun’ – where are you going? Part of teaching is to know that we have to learn for knowledge and wisdom. All these should bring us to the One with knowledge and wisdom – AlAleem and AlHakeem. This is where the transformation of higher education should bring us to. Bringing us back to the realization that Allah is The Lord and we are His servants and caliphs.


  1. Both are important :)

    Without research (in your field), I doubt you can be a great teacher, especially in areas that are dynamic and changing all the time.

    I just find it hard to understand why KPIs (meaning people setting them!) cannot appreciate great teaching and lecturers developing learning modules (one publication per!).

    It is plain simple, but I suppose we need to unlearn old rules that should not be rules :)

    Thanks for a great article and interview :)



  2. Thank you Zaid for your comment. I think in recent years teaching has been receiving increasing attention and recognition even in research-intensive university. The main issue that needs to be resolved is the mechanism for evaluating good teachers. I hope to hear more from educators out there on the issue of teaching-research nexus.